Friends are so important to a teenager’s development that the relative scarcity of them is likely to make your teen anxious. Very anxious. Consider this before you act. As they grow older, it becomes more challenging to intervene and not be perceived as a helicopter parent or part of the problem.
How can I help my teenager make friends? The best way to help a teen with social anxiety, shyness or introversion is to set the stage for them to take small steps at their own pace. Pushing your teen too hard, such as arranging a social event for them, will backfire.
- Identify the reason for the social anxiety
- Don’t push – set the stage for social growth instead
- Developing qualities of a good friend through self-reflection
- Tips for making friends from teens
- Engage resources at school and in your community
I went to the source for real-world advice about building friendships – the teens themselves. Here’s why: I can hold forth about my own (distant!) experience as a teen, as a middle school teacher and as a researcher. I can also put together an action plan full of great tips from my perspective and from psychologists about how teens can make friends.
But this is an emotional issue that overshadows most others in a teen’s life. It’s essential to understand social anxiety from your teen’s point of view. We need to know how it really feels to struggle in making friends as a teen.
I asked my resident experts in teen culture (unpaid but for room, board and allowance) to give us some insight into how adolescent friendships are really formed.
A caveat: Some of this advice will seem counterintuitive to us adults. Some of it may make you cringe at the harsh social interactions of middle and high school as reported by my kids and other teens I know. My daughter insists that making friends in high school is not quite comparable to the tenets of Social Darwinism, though it may be close. That said, I’ll try to frame it into some actionable steps that stays true to the actual advice given by my teens and the degreed experts.
Identify the Reason Behind Your Teen’s Social Anxiety
Adolescent standards for who is friend-worthy can be stringent – qualities in kids who are perceived as too short, too tall, too smart, too strange, too quiet or unskilled at sports can all be grounds for exclusion in a teen mindset. The emphasis is on conformity to an ideal that may change abruptly. This can vary by community or as teens age.
Kids who don’t meet a relatively narrow set of peer standards react differently to the real or perceived exclusion. Some teens become disruptive or take excessive risks to get attention of any kind. Some withdraw further into themselves and set up a self-fulfilling pattern of isolation and sadness. Others may just decide to go their own way and not pursue friendships at all. Others become bullies or are bullied themselves.
It can be a lot of work to conform to someone else’s version of normal. And socially excluded teens may not know how to hold their own in a group situation, especially if the wrong thing said or done can have lasting peer consequences. And the most pressing idea of all: Maybe conforming is not even the most effective way to become more at ease in your own skin over the long haul to adulthood.
Yet, kids who are isolated because of a lack of friends can be helped to develop social skills to bridge the disconnection at a time when they need it most.
Try to have a casual conversation about friendships with your teen. I mean a really light, testing-the-waters type of a conversation. If they’re relatively open, you can help build the communication between you with some of these ideas. The insights you gain about how they feel in their social relationships can help you decide in which ways you can best help – either directly or by supporting them in the background.
The American Academy of Pediatrics identifies definite steps you can take to help your tween and teen make friendships.
Here are a few tips that the AAP recommends:
- Immerse your teen in social activities in which they have a high interest.
- Role-play conversations and situations to help your teen practice common scenarios they will encounter.
- Seek the help of a counselor who specializes in social skill development.
Don’t Push – Set the Stage Instead
As I shared this with my teens to get their perspective, they agreed with the AAP’s advice that structured activities can help a hesitant kid to build relationships over time, but only if they have a genuine interest in the activity. If your teen is pursuing a passion and will shine (or at least feel competent) while doing it, that may help them gain the confidence needed to begin a friendship. In the next breath they warned against forcing a tween or teen into an activity or sport against their will. This just sets the kid up for disaster, they said quietly, looking pointedly at me. The seasons of swimming, basketball and cross country for which I signed my unwilling kids up came filtering back in my memory.
Don’t make my mistake. Let your teen choose. Participating in a high-interest activity for its own sake can help get them out of their own heads and put the focus on achieving a goal. Over time, this may help their social anxiety to fade to a point that they can relate to others in a more open way.
The most helpful activities in taking teens’ focus off themselves are those that emphasize cooperation in problem-solving, learning a skill and making an impact in the world.
Here are some examples of social, goal-directed activities:
Scouting – assignment to a den or patrol within a troop can function as a built-in friend group in which members are all engaged in a common purpose.
Sports – if your teen is inclined to physical activity, sports can be a powerful vehicle to develop camaraderie around team goals.
Clubs – allows a teen to hone in on a special interest; provides a low barrier to entry.
Church Youth Groups – emphasis in church groups is placed less on petty concerns like popularity and more on improving the world in some way.
Acting – it seems counter-intuitive, but many shy or introverted people excel in acting, in which you can adopt a different persona.
Technical/Stage Work – for the creator/builder/techie who will shine with other like-minded teens behind the scenes.
Group Volunteering – for compassionate kids or those who are building empathy.
The AAP advice about incorporating role-playing scenarios and practicing conversational skills with parents drew visible shudders from both my teens, followed by some muttering that I couldn’t quite make out. My husband and I already bring up hypothetical situations in a low-key way and a subtle approach seems to work best if teens will tolerate it at all.
You may want to take that piece slowly depending on the sensitivity of your teen and how much of your direct involvement he or she will accept. Although you may want to intervene with a comprehensive social-skill-building program at once to end your teen’s isolation, it may help to build these skills over time at their own pace.
Developing Qualities of a Good Friend Through Self-Reflection
If your teen is resistant to your input, here are some ideas that may depend less on your direct involvement and more on setting a stage for their own exploration or with a counselor.
Mindfulness and Self-Reflection – teens that struggle socially may not see possibilities of different outcomes to their daily social interactions. They won’t recognize the part that they themselves may unwittingly play in the isolation. Sometimes the negative self-talk digs a hole so deep in their self-esteem that they can’t see out. The sadness or depression, in turn, becomes a social repellant itself. If that’s the case, a therapist or a school counselor can help your teen break the cycle and build a new approach to social interaction.
Other ideas to help them reflect on their social behaviors and see new possibilities:
Books – Because social-emotional angst is almost universally experienced by tweens and teens, there have been many fiction books published in the middle grades and young adult levels which feature protagonists struggling with social- and self-acceptance, nonconformity and peer pressure. Characters typically represent a kid who has been marginalized for a variety of reasons: social awkwardness, poverty, class, gender identification, sexual orientation, ethnicity or appearance.
The story itself can present strategies of dealing with social isolation. When you feel alone, it can be powerful to recognize your exact feeling in a character. Perhaps less obvious, but no less potent, is the empathy and tolerance that can be developed in a broader audience by understanding the inner struggles of a character dealing with these issues.
If your teen is motivated enough to change the situation through a study of self-help-type books, there are also nonfiction books which focus on the mechanics of friend-making and teen socialization.
Journaling – in a similar way, writing their feelings may help them examine the patterns in their interactions, give them a place to vent safely and work out problems.
It will help to understand why your teen is socially hesitant. The perspective and possible encouragement to offer will be somewhat different if your teen is…
A new kid – encourage your teen to join activities and sports in which he or she excelled in their old school. Skills and competence in an area can be an effective icebreaker.
A shy kid – sometimes practicing social skills with someone a year or two younger or from a different school can help build confidence. This is especially true if the interaction allows the shy kid to act as an informal mentor to another.
An introverted kid- may prefer quiet activities with one friend. One or two good friends may be enough, with a circle of acquaintances.
A different thinker – Does your kid have a hobby or passion that marks them as a bit different from the accepted norm of their school? Devotees of Comicon, Star Wars, robotics, anime, theater, computers, etc will benefit from the chance to connect with other like-minded kids in person.
Real Advice about Breaking into a Group from a Middle School Teen
Here are some general (paraphrased) strategies from my teens about making friends. All involve stretching your social risk muscle. The good news is that this can be done gradually, over time.
Get the Lay of the Land – identify a group or two which seem to be relatively approachable and who may share similar interests or outlook.
Don’t Approach a Group All at Once – It can be difficult to approach a group all at once. People in the group may be posing for each other, vying for dominance. It may not bring out their best selves for a new person.
Start with One – In every group, there is at least one person who is nicer or more open than the rest. Identify that person and find a way to approach them through an activity in class, a homework question or some other excuse. This step may need to be repeated a couple of times over a few weeks until you get to know that person slightly.
Try to be Low-Key Until you Understand the Group Dynamics – Once you are included (even in a superficial way) into the group, understand the power structure among the members before you participate or share your ideas in a real way. Try to fit in and talk a little about current topics with a broad appeal. Do more listening than talking. Don’t say weird things.
Real Advice about Making Friends from a High School Teen
The Power of Kind Neutrality
A strong overall strategy is to project a low-key friendliness to everyone, no matter what drama is currently afoot. This includes not participating in mean gossip or other negative social stuff even if it makes you feel temporarily important to be included.
Recognize the Different Levels of “Friend”- Not all friends need to be of equal status. It may help to think of people in your school in these terms of friendliness:
- Friendly to – in this base level interaction, you project a low-key friendliness to everyone as long as they are treating you decently, and even sometimes if they aren’t. This helps you focus on your own behavior (what you can control) and not their behavior.
- Friendly with – This is your wider group of acquaintances that you may get to know a little by working together in classes, sports or activities. It’s like a help network.
- Friends with – these are your real friends, and you may need only one or two. These are the people that you trust without question, who appreciate you for who you are.
Silence is Not a Long-term Strategy – Notwithstanding the above advice about doing more listening than talking, long-term silence will get you branded as weird if you never participate at all.
Try Out Conversations in Different-sized Groups – If you feel intimidated by participating in a larger group, try having conversations with one or two people at a time. On the other hand, a larger group might be better if you have trouble keeping a conversational ball in the air with one other person.
Be Yourself, But Try Out Different Facets of You in Low-Risk Situations – If you’re working with people you don’t know and you feel they are an accepting sort, try out different conversational topics and get some practice. Practice being more outgoing, sillier or more confident than you usually are. See how it feels.
Reaching Out to Schools and Community Resources
The development of empathy and tolerance for differences are core attributes which ease the way for friendships to develop in school. These two qualities form a core of what’s called social-emotional learning, a theory of which began to gain momentum at Yale University in the 1960s.
Schools have a wide variety of social-emotional programs which range from lunch social groups, peer leadership, anti-bullying programs and school climate committees. Teachers at the middle school level try to reinforce the development of empathy. Curriculum is also designed to develop empathy for the human experience in social sciences and humanities. Most schools have teams of counselors who will work with your teen in school in classes, small groups and individually.
There are times when you may have to step over the line from encouraging your teen to develop social skills to intervening directly on their behalf. If your teen seems depressed, inclined to self-harm or aggression towards others, is skipping school, experiencing bullying or other major conflicts, alert your teen’s school and get help right away from a professional in your community.
Some Related Resources
Stop Bullying – www.stopbullying.gov/
Succeed Socially, How to Join a Conversation – www.succeedsocially.com/joinconversations
Social and Emotional Learning: Strategies for Parents – edutopia.org/social-emotional-learning-parent-resources